Loans are the best way to meet degree pledge

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 March, 2008, 12:00am

This month, the government plans to release a report on associate degrees in Hong Kong and its role in the programmes. The administration is, however, caught between a rock and a hard place, because of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's promise of tertiary education for 60 per cent of our young people. To beat a retreat by cutting back the programmes would incur the wrath of many educators, students and parents. But to take a bold step forward would be condemned by taxpayers for wasting their hard-earned money.

Indeed, the government has no choice but to support the programmes, given people's high expectations and the HK$100 billion budget surplus. It also has to take the lead in helping many of the associate degree graduates achieve a full undergraduate education.

Offering loans to educators and students is the key. Loans are different from grants and are less controversial, and the government can always recoup the money in 10 to 20 years. The government could consider bundling the loans and selling them as bonds to investors, thus lessening the risk. In fact, the students would be financing their studies, with some assistance from the government.

First, the government should extend loans to educators to 20 years, from the current 10 years. To repay the loans, with interest, some providers of associate degree programmes have to charge higher tuition fees at present. Extending the loan period would hurt the government very little but would help students and educators greatly.

Second, since the government decided to stop financing many associate degree programmes in 2003, many students have had to pay HK$40,000 or more a year to fund their education. For many poor families, this is a heavy burden. The government should offer loans for up to half or two-thirds of the tuition fees, so that students could spend more time on their studies and less time having to do part-time jobs.

Third, the government should help associate degree graduates fulfil their university education dreams. At present, only about 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the 12,000 associate degree graduates are accepted as second-year students by the seven local universities.

To be fair, not all associate degree graduates have the interest or capacity to continue their education. About half would love to, according to past surveys. When one takes away the 1,500 or so graduates who can enrol in government-funded university programmes and another 2,000 enrolled in self-financed programmes, that leaves about 2,500 graduates who either go overseas or enrol in the so-called 'top-up' programmes run by local institutions. Here, the government must go a step further and offer loans to many of them.

It doesn't make much sense for the government to roll back these associate degree programmes; the only solution is to move forward. This will not only help educators and students, it can also nurture a pool of talent to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Victor Fung Keung is a Hong Kong-based commentator on political and education issues